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Chicago Tribune March 25, 2003

Wisconsin base bursting with GIs

Boredom engulfs troops awaiting Iraq deployment

By John McCormick, Tribune staff reporter.

As Scott Williams moved through the Wal-Mart checkout aisle, his shopping cart brimmed with batteries, disposable cameras, music CDs and a 19-inch color TV.

"We needed something to keep us from being bored," said Williams, 25, explaining why he and two buddies from an Iowa-based National Guard unit were buying a television for their barracks.

The military is known as a world where soldiers are often told to hurry up and wait. For many of the Midwest's part-time soldiers, this is where they're waiting--at least for now.

As they watch their fellow soldiers roll through the Iraqi desert, the level of frustration is growing among some of those who have been parked at this U.S. Army installation for as long as six weeks because of the staggered roll-out of troops.

"I just want to go and get it over with," said Melyssa Cruz, 25, a member of the Chicago-based 708th Medical Company.

Base has 8,200 soldiers

Ft. McCoy, a 60,000-acre base in the wooded hills of western Wisconsin, is reaching its capacity. The population on the base, located halfway between Chicago and the Twin Cities, has doubled in the last month and now stands at 8,200.

"All of our barracks are filled," said Linda Fournier, a Ft. McCoy spokeswoman.

Roughly 2,000 Illinois members of the Army National Guard have been called to active duty so far. The vast majority have passed through or remain at Ft. McCoy, one of 15 installations where troops train, receive immunizations and make other preparations before shipping out.

The units at Ft. McCoy specialize in transporting supplies, caring for the wounded, maintaining equipment and policing prisoners of war and refugees.

Because the military doesn't know how soon it will need those support functions, some soldiers have waited here longer than they expected. Turkey's decision not to allow U.S. ground forces also slowed the deployment for some.

Other centers crowded

Not all of those at Ft. McCoy will be deployed to the Persian Gulf. Some will handle homeland-security assignments, while others may be deployed to Afghanistan, Europe or elsewhere to cover for units that are moved to the war with Iraq.

Some units have moved through Ft. McCoy as quickly as two or three weeks, but many have been there a month or more. It typically takes about three weeks to complete all the qualification tests required for mobilization.

Lt. Col. Robert Saxon, an Army spokesman, said the military is trying to balance the mixture of forces deployed to Iraq and other regions. He said some other centers are as crowded as McCoy.

Some of the increased traffic at Ft. McCoy is the result of the military having far fewer mobilization stations than it did a decade ago, as the military has tried to streamline its operations.

Even as some soldiers at Ft. McCoy leave for overseas, more roll in. Most of those on the base are from the Midwest, but there are also soldiers from places as far away as California and Puerto Rico.

On weekends, additional soldiers --up to 1,000--further crowd the fort as part of routine National Guard training activities.

"It's a line for the PX, a line to go to eat. Lines for everything," said Rebecca Rodriguez, 33, one of about 20 members of an Arlington Heights-based military police unit that was training Monday on how to process incoming prisoners of war.

Ft. McCoy was created in 1909. It served as a supply base for the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, a POW relocation camp during World War II and a refugee holding area for 15,000 Cubans in 1980.

Since January, just 1,500 soldiers have shipped out from the fort. About 500 of those were dispatched to the Persian Gulf, with the rest assigned to homeland security or other duties.

As part of the 1991 Gulf War, the last time the fort was this active, 9,000 soldiers were processed through Ft. McCoy.

Conditions are not as harsh as those faced in the Iraqi desert, but the place still isn't home, even with the refrigerators, video game systems, microwaves and teddy bears the soldiers have brought from home or purchased in surrounding towns.

Communications problems

Communicating with family back home can be a struggle. The fort's remoteness means only two cell phone carriers provide signals to the base, and lines for standard telephones and computers with e-mail access often are long.

How long soldiers are allowed off the base varies from unit to unit, largely depending on their commander and whether they've completed their training requirements.

Some get only four or six hours at a time, while others have been allowed to spend an entire weekend away from the base. For those allowed just a few hours, the Wal-Mart in Tomah is a top destination.

"We get busloads at a time, and we don't get a lot of warning," said David Rischette, a store manager.

Rischette said computer laptops, DVDs, folding chairs, snack foods and soda are among the top items purchased by the soldiers. "I think they have time to kill," he said.

AMERICA AT WAR. AT THE READY.

GRAPHIC: PHOTOS 2 GRAPHICPHOTO (color): Bored soldiers awaiting their assignments at Ft. McCoy, Wis., watch CNN to follow the progress of their colleagues in Iraq. Tribune photos by Stacey Wescott.;

PHOTO (color): Pfc. David Janzen, a member of a military police unit that has; been at Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin since March 5, uses his cell phone to talk to family members in Des Moines.;

GRAPHIC: Coalition strength in Iraq.; Currently there are nearly 300,000 military personnel deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the Defense Department.; ACTIVE FORCES (estimates); - IN GULF (300,000); British: 30,000; U.S.: 270,000; Air Force 23,000; Marines 60,000; Army 71,000; Navy, including aviators 76,884; - 1991 GULF WAR; (675,000); Other*: 135,000; U.S.: 540,000; RESERVES/NATIONAL GUARD; (Total: 1.28 million); Active duty: 212,617; Not on active duty: 1,067,383; *Include British, French, Egyptians, Saudis, Syrians and other nations.;

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